After thirty six years in PR and communications, and nearly twenty three years with my firm Weber Shandwick, my boss Andy Polansky and I announced yesterday my stepping down from the firm and PR in early 2018.
For me it was a mix of excitement about the future and focussing on my family and my personal creative projects, and sadness at leaving such a great firm, team and industry.
Having failed to make a living as a music journalist and new wave poet (oh yes) I fell into PR thanks to my first boss Barry Walsh (then head of PR for The Automobile Association and now a published novelist, and still an inspiration to me).
As a working class Northerner who didn’t even know what PR was (and didn’t possess a driving licence) it was a lucky break in the graduate unemployment hit 1980s.
That break taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t wait to be asked or accidentally discovered. I put on my only suit one day and marched up to the top floor and banged on his office door. Luckily he saw my potential. I have tried to do the same in others ever since, regardless of education and social and cultural background.
After a couple of other jobs I read an interview in The Guardian with Labour’s new director of communications, a certain Peter Mandelson. He talked of how the Left had to match the Tories at their own game on professional marketing and communications. I wrote to him saying I shared his view. He invited me in for coffee and I walked out with a job. Another lesson – be proactive. Put yourself about.
Peter also became my mentor, and I always urge young PRs to seek out someone they admire and can learn from. Worked for me.
Political communications is not for the faint hearted, but I had a great time, learned a lot, and worked with politicians like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and great strategists like the late Phillip Gould and Deborah Mattheson, not to mention the Red Wedge collective.
Then came The Prince’s Trusts. There was some opposition to this working class lefty being allowed near Prince Charles’ inner sanctum, but I got there and survived several attempts by Luddites in the Royal Household to fire me.
While at The Prince’s Trusts ( comms director for the PoW’s International Business Leaders Forum) I got to travel the world as part of PC’s entourage. I was a long way from Salford.
I also got pro bono support from an international PR agency (who will remain nameless and I am sure will have improved). I thought they were a useless bunch of chinless wonders, adding little value and dressing up plain common sense in over complicated marketing bollocks.
I was sceptical therefore to be approached by another international PR firm, Shandwick, back in 1995. On offer was a senior role in their London public affairs practice, which like most PA firms in the mid 1990s were stuffed full of Tories and old-style lobbyists. I took the plunge, got a decent wedge for the first time and a company motor, and have barely regretted a day since. I am very proud as a working class son of Salford and Irish immigrants to have ended up running a big chunk of the world’s second largest and most respected PR firm, with a stellar list of clients.
I am also proud of the work we do in partnership with clients which has made us the most award-winning and Cannes Lions winning EMEA PR network. I am deeply grateful to Lord McNally, Lord Chadlington, Shandwick’s founder, who gave me my first agency role, Harris Diamond (now leading mega ad network McCann) who gave me the UK CEO role at Weber Shandwick and my current boss Andy Polansky who promoted me to run Europe and now EMEA in 2008.
Sensing my impending decrepitude following my recent blog proclaiming I had hit 60, some very nice people have been asking me what I want to do next in PR. The answer is simple – nothing.
You never say never, but after four decades in this industry, surfing the exciting waves of change we have been going through since the social media revolution, and working in a senior role for one of the top two firms in the international agency space, and certainly the most creatively awarded in this region, me and PR are kinda done with each other.
Having talked about creativity for a decade, it’s now time for me to focus on my own creative ambitions and passions. Over the coming year I will be heading back to college to do an MA in creative writing, and I want to write full time as well as be more of a full-time dad to my three young boys.
So thanks PR, you’ve been good to me, and I have tried to give something back to you. But it’s not the be all and end all.
What I do want to do over the coming year, as well as serve my firm and colleagues with the commitment I have always shown and they deserve, is to continue to make waves on diversity – social as well as ethnic – and broadening the talent pool in PR. We need the next generation of Jamal Edwards, not just black or Asian traditional media relations people. We need greater social as well as cultural and skill set diversity.
PR spends too much time looking inwards at PR. In a post digital, creative content driven world, our future talent probably hasn’t even heard of PR. We just have to work harder to attract them, interest them, promote and retain them.
So what has this gnarled old PR vet gleaned from nearly four decades of living in spin?
Firstly, I believe that the biggest drivers of change in our industry for most of its history have both occurred in the past decade – the social media revolution and the opening up of the Cannes Lions festival to PR. Social media has not just got us out of the media relations silo it has levelled the playing field in marketing. We in PR are no longer always second fiddle to advertising.
On the other hand Cannes has forced us to see our work not just up against other PR firms, but in the context of the most creative minds in marketing and communications. It has forced us to raise our game on creativity and strategy. That’s a good thing, and to those in PR who feel uncomfortable or exposed – that’s the point!
Secondly, we have to stop talking well-meaningly about diversity and start to act decisively on it. There are great schemes out there like The Taylor Bennett Foundation’s work with Brunswick and FTI, and Weber Shandwick’s partnership with The Media Trust, that can be picked up on and joined. We recently put senior managers through unconscious bias training which I can recommend. And we have to set ourselves real, measurable targets in terms of BAME consulting staff.
Thirdly, and I say this to all junior staff I speak to on managing their PR careers, get yourself a mentor. They don’t have to be the greatest political strategist of their generation (like mine) but they will be someone whose career and thinking you admire. And if you are senior, try reverse mentoring. Get digitally native Millennials and Gen z’s to teach you stuff about latest trends and SoMe innovations. They live it, you learn it.
Fourthly, I solidly believe that everyone should work both sides of the in-house/agency divide. Without that level of understanding, unconscious “us and them” attitudes persist.
Fifth, it’s not enough just to talk creativity, have a pink plaster cow in reception or rebadge some dude from the consumer practice with a cool haircut and trainers as ‘creative director’. You have to give your team creative inspiration and space to absorb creative energy. You can’t expect staff to sit for ten hours a day at a desk and suddenly turn on the creative brilliance. Set them free to be creative.
Finally, I am often asked about my management style. If I have one it is probably part Alex from A Clockwork Orange, part Michael Corleone, part Sun Tzu and part Machiavelli. Occasionally being a twat but always trying to be authentic. I can live with that.
So that’s all for now. I will continue to use my blog partly to write on PR, an industry that has occupied two thirds of my life.